Sharks: from demonization to glorification

Recently I came across Ocearch, a shark tracking project which has produced some amazing videos of Great Whites and other sharks being tagged:

One of the interesting shifts in my lifetime has been from seeing sharks as fearsome, psychopathic killers to creatures worth preserving and studying. A few years back, after a fatal shark incident on a beach in Australia, protest marches followed … to protest the potential killing of the shark.

When I was a child in the 1980s sharks were one of my big fears – a little unreasonably in Irish waters! Of course, this was because of Jaws, which I don’t think I actually saw (or its various sequels, which were up to IV I think around this time) but had absorbed the scarier bits by osmosis. Obviously a human-killing creature with big teeth naturally taps into very primal fears. I remember vivid dreams of Great Whites turning up in the surf of Magheragallon – and waking just before being devoured. Or a recurring thought of my bedroom floor turning into a shark-filled ocean floor.

As a bit of a sceptic / wet blanket on the moral worthiness the media sometimes likes to self-indulge in, it is interesting to recall my view of sharks was changed pretty much overnight by a magazine story; a BBC Wildlife cover story in about 1988/89 which featured hammerheads and various other sharks in their own environment. It focused on their actual natural lives, as opposed to scary projections. This cured my shark fear straight away, and I recall vividly a gratitude for this.

I am not too sure about sentimentality about sharks either, but it is good to see that sharks are now seen in a more balanced way, and as species crucial to the ocean ecosystem. Ocearch seems to have an #OceanOptimism philosophy, which I think is a necessary corrective to some of the more indulgently apocalyptic strands of conservation (see Dylan Evans’ “The Utopia Experiment” for an illustration of where this can lead) and while their videos may be a wee bit too slick at times, the footage of humans calmly interacting with Great Whites (in a certain context and environment of course) is something a child raised in the shadow of Jaws still has to get his head round..

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